Saturday, March 25, 2006

Illuminating the Word

Our two sons came home for Spring Break from the University of Missouri last night.
The older son joined us for a trip to the Joslyn Museum to see the magnificent exhibit "The Saint John's Bible". Since 2000, scribes and artists in Wales have been crafting The Saint John's Bible, the first illuminated bible made since the advent of the printing press more than 500 years ago. Go to
for more information, but here's a brief sketch.

Saint John's University and Abbey in Minnesota commissioned this unique bible as a richly ornamented masterwork, written and illustrated by hand on oversized vellum with hand-ground pigments and gold leaf. A modern English translation is used, with illuminations reflecting a multicultural world and humanity's strides in science, technology, and space exploration. In the Joslyn exhibit 100 original pages from this project are featured along with sketches, tools, and other materials.

Those who commissioned the work make this statement: "The Saint John's Bible aspires to be ecumenical as well- to unite humankind, not further divide will speak in words and pictures to people of all faiths."

Our experience at the exhibit seemed to validate this claim. I saw an extraordinarily diverse group of people today. Lots of young people, children and teenagers and college students were present. Imagine that! Standing in front of one of the bible pages I saw a teenage boy wrap his arms around his girlfriend while they talked about a scene from one of the gospels. A middle aged woman was pushing what must have been her mother in a wheel-chair as they talked. Several hundred people of varied ages and races were present. I ran into an Hispanic pastor I've come to know. African Americans, pale faces such as myself, Asians, and who knows how many other ethnicities were present to enjoy this exhibit on the Bible. I thought to myself, What a powerful experience to see the Saint John's Bible draw such a varied group of people!

Standing in front of the large page from the Gospel portraying Jesus feeding the 5,000 I saw a father holding his 4-5 year daughter in one arm while a somewhat older daughter was holding his other hand. They talked about the story as the older girl read about Jesus feeding people. I saw lots of parents with young children pushing them in strollers.

This was my third visit to the exhibit and each time a new page among the 100 exhibited has captured my interest. Today it was the scene of Lazarus being raised to new life after his death. On the page, Lazarus is pictured in dark swirling shapes and forms as if he's in a deep cave on the left-hand margin of the page. To the far right, in smaller perspective there's a circle of light with the figure of Jesus calling Lazarus to come out and live. But the figure of Lazarus is leaning backward, almost as if he's reluctant to come toward the light. The note card beside the page offers the thought that this page has been influenced by descriptions of near-death experiences individuals have reported. The tunnel or shaft of light mirrors the near-death encounter some have described.

This portrait of Lazrus, who in the gospel of John, does come forth, also includes the account of witnesses having to unbind him, so that he can fully live. In this Lenten season, it's a good reminder of the near-death lives of despair or bitterness or desperation that some people face in life. Being called to a fuller experience of life by Christ is an ongoing spiritual journey for us all.

Another page that caught my attention was the page where I saw the father with his two daughters. Colorful baskets of bread influenced by Native American art are part of the page. The comment posted next to this page is memorable. "The baskets symbolize the multiplying effect of any act of love, such as sharing."

I came away today realizing once more how powerfully Word and Image serve to engage our fuller response to the text of Scripture. Seeing hundreds of people of all ages and conditions in life affirmed the intention of those who commissioned this Bible as an effort to "unite humankind, not further divide it." Sadly, the Bible has far too often been used to create division and sow disharmony. That's not what I experienced today. I'm grateful!

Monday, March 13, 2006

What are friends for?

We began our Lenten spiritual journey last Wednesday at church with a beginning conversation about "The Spiritual Journey and Friendship". I invited people around tables to share an early experience with friendship in life. Here was mine.
When I was a 12 year old boy, I learned a key biblical insight into friendship.
It was a Wednesday night fellowship gathering at church, and I was playing with a large group of boys outside, when Graham Creech, an older boy and notorius bully took a dislike to me and said: "I'm going to beat the snot out of you!"

Tommy Bunnell, another boy a year older than me who had been a friend since I was in first grade and he was in second, quickly stepped between us and said to Graham Creech: "You'll have to go through me first."

"There are friends who pretend to be friends, and there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother," says one of the Proverbs. That was my biblical insight.
Friends protect each other.

Of coure that early experience also confirmed my belief in miracles. God saved me from a sure and certain Death in the presence of Tommy Bunnell.

That night around our tables at the beginning of our Lenten journey, several people contributed insights about friendship. One young girl and her invited friend shared this: "Friends don't gossip about each other. They keep your secrets". What an insight from a couple of young girls all of about ten years of age. Friends are people we can confide in, and share both the best and worst about ourselves- and still be loved.

John O'Donohue writing in his book "Anam Cara" (a Celtic view of spiritual friendship) feels "there's a huge crisis of belonging in postmodern culture."
I think he's right for a number of reasons. After childhood, I think lots of adults shut down their friend-making capacity. It's not easy to make friends in a business/consumer culture where lots of people look like competitors, and sharing secrets in the workplace is definitely a career killer. Then there's the anonymity of much of suburban culture, or the fear-factor in more urban settings.

Here's where we have to acknowledge our need to develop or recapture some friend-making capacities. Alered of Rievaulx was a monk of the 12 century in Britain who was drawn to the experience of "Spiritual Friendship" and wrote about the way of friendship. Now, there's a spiritual practice worth acquiring, the ability to develop friendship. I think it's a calling that we in the church need to respond to in our postmodern period of disposable relationships.

Where have you learned about the qualities of authentic friendships? Who has been your most unlikely friend? What disappointments have you experienced within a friendship- how it felt, and what you did, and what your friend did?

One older woman at our Lenten gathering shared this: "True friends are those who really know you, but love you anyway."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Why New Orleans Needs Saving

Of the 455,000 people who once lived in New Orleans, only 144,000 have returned. In biblical terms, a great exile of the people has occurred with residents of the city scattered all across the United States. I've been thinking about this challenge for many weeks now, as I work with fellow Presbyterians here in Omaha to send our first mission team to the New Orleans area in May for a service project. Why should we care about New Orleans here in Omaha? First of all, we have a call as people of faith to reach out to our neighbors in their time of crisis. What we are learning six months after Hurricane Katrina is that caring support for those in need can begin to challenge us after a period of time. In the news this week, reports from Houston, Texas indicate a level of compassion fatigue has begun to develop. The people of Houston, its public officials and churches, deserve our highest admiration. But it isn't surprising that fatigue has begun to set in. In many ways, our national character is being tested by this experience and as the story unfolds there will be much courage and hope to celebrate, as well as failures of imagination and love to honestly confess. Love and compassionate sharing aren't easy.

In the last few days I bought the benefit cd album "Our New Orleans" which offers a wide range of the best of New Orleans musical talent, from Allen Toussaint to Dr. John, Buckwheat Zydeco, Beausoleil and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It's fantastic.

"Our New Orleans" opens with a rocking number by Allen Toussaint titled "Yes We Can".
It calls on the spirit of hope and mutual love to overcome tragedy and loss. Toussaint spoke with remarkable calm after the storm: "My Steinway, my records, my arrangements, my studio- it's all gone. I had eight feet of water in my house near Bayou St. John" He escaped from his drowning city with little more than the clothes he had on. In the production of this benefit cd, Toussaint added, "But the spirit didn't drown. I still have my music. Give me a hammer. I'm ready to do my part." What a courageous man!

Are we all "ready to do our part?" That's the question people of faith need to struggle with. That's what we as Americans need to wrestle with together.

One of the great lyrics on this album reminds of what it would mean to give up on New Orleans. It's played by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band....

Do you know what it means
To miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
Well I know I'm not wrong
The feeling's getting stronger
The longer I stay away
Miss those moss-covered vines
The tall sugar-pines
Where mockingbirds used to sing
And I'd like to see the lazy Mississippi
A hurrying about to spring
The moonlight on the Bayous*
Those Creole tunes that fill the air
You know I dream about magnolias in bloom
And soon I'm wishing that I were there
Do you know what it means
To miss those Red Beans
When that's where you left your heart
And there's one thing more
I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Humble Pie

It’s been a while since I had a birthday party, so I had to do some quick thinking when Cheryl and I invited our friends over for a party. One of the first decisions was whether to have a cake. No, I said to everyone. I’m a pie kind of a guy. As an older member said to me several years ago during the course of a church pot-luck, “There’s only two kinds of pie I like………hot or cold!” I second that. So we invited everyone to bring a pie for my birthday to share. Something about pie brings out the best in people and I’ve found produces some good conversation.

I came across called “Humble Pie” by Anne Dimock with the subtitle “Musings on what lies beneath the crust” that pretty sums up my feelings about pie.

“Nothing as easily as pie stands for everything decent, good, honest, homey and American. Some people don’t eat pork. Some don’t eat meat. Some people don’t ingest caffeine or alcohol. Is there anyone who, as a statement of ethics or conscience, doesn’t eat pie.” --Roger Welsch

I learned about pie-baking the old fashioned way, from my grandmother. If I wanted pie, she was always ready to bake one. In the summer during blackberry season on her farm, my grandmother would send me out into the woods with a bucket to pick enough of that delectable black fruit to bake up a cobbler or pie. I had to put some effort into it, picking the berries and trying to avoid the sticky thorns on the vines. Eating some of the fruit along with the picking was part of the experience. So was a case of “chiggars”; those pesky microbial bugs that dig under the skin and start fierce scratching. But the pay off was one fantastic pie. I still have the kitchen stool my grandmother sat on to make pie crust. She’d measure out the flour in an earthen mixing bowl, then hollow out a valley in the mountain of flour to pour in the butter milk, and then cut in some lard. We’d sprinkle flour on the mixing board for the crust and then roll it out and cut it to shape. Pie making is a sensory experience at its best. Pie baking is a talent worth sharing. It takes a little time and some care, but a master pie baker can easily guess at the measurement of ingredients.

Humble pie. Anne Dimock says that “Pie Makers do not weigh and consider their calling. They do not choose among berries or stone fruits as one might choose a pair of shoes. The Pie Maker is called and that’s all there is to it; she (or he?) either heeds the call or not.” Dimmock believes each pie maker is called to a particular kind of pie; almost like a spiritual calling that is unique. For her it was rhubarb.

For Dimmock, rhubarb has it all- the power to enrich, to humble, to satisfy, and to make everybody happy. It is God’s wisdom…It places everyone on an equal footing and teaches what is really important and essential in this world. It is also one of the best pies to set the stage for a reconciliation. It doesn’t matter how long the feud or what it was about, rhubarb pie loosens everybody’s grip just enough to work some magic. A couple of forkfuls and adversaries begin to lower their guard. An entire slice leads to declarations of mutual support and admiration. There is much to admire in a rhubarb pie: the perfect pairing of opposites-sour and sweet- and the proof that they can, and should, coexist.

Needless to say, I like pie. I’m thinking right now about a home-made apple pie with Granny smith apples. It’s putting me in a pretty good mood.